Published: September 19, 2022
I have to say that every once in a while I just relish the opportunity to take a leisurely break from hammering my brains out on the bicycle in the never-ending maintenance of cardiorespiratory fitness.
And when I do decide to take those much needed breaks, it’s usually because I get the itch to check out a new rail trail which over the years has been just the right catalyst to prod me into indulging that spiritual side of my cycling self.
Heck across the past several decades my girlfriend and I have ventured out on two-, four-, six- and even eight-hour car trips, oftentimes zombie-eyed and hypnotized in our pursuit of these spiritual little getaways.
And so, as Brittany Spears famously said, ”Oops I did it again.” Yea, needing a physical respite as well as a change in our cycling psyche, we decided to throw our bikes in the van and head out to yet another untried rail trail, a just-around-the-corner venue which turned out to make for a perfectly relaxing weekend.
For this trip we dropped in on western Pennsylvania’s 63-mile Montour Trail, the former Montour Railroad and Peters Creek Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a coal-hauling thoroughfare that operated between Coraopolis and Clairton from 1877 to 1984.
Forming a semicircle around western metro Pittsburgh and hosting a slew of bridges, trestles, viaducts and tunnels, the Montour Trail is one of the longest and most picturesque suburban rail-trails in the United States––all situated amidst the backdrop of the beautiful rolling hills of western Pennsylvania.
The Montour’s surface is primarily crushed limestone, with small paved sections in Peters Township and Clairton. There are also a couple of short, on-road sections between South Park Township and Clairton.
Now keep in mind that this trail’s not a loop, so you’ll need two vehicles or you’ll have to do out-and-back rides, which is exactly what we did.
What’s more, despite the fact that this trail is considered suburban, there’s little accessible infrastructure along it apart from benches, picnic tables and restroom facilities.
I counted only two establishments along the entire length of this trail that serve food and beverages.
So make sure to take plenty of food and liquid if you go for long jaunts.
For those of you who want to rent bikes or purchase tubes, tires or bike parts, the only major bike shop along the trail is The Tandem Connection in Canonsburg, situated right along the trail at about the midpoint.
Okay, so this is not your typical flat as a pancake rail trail.
I mean think about it…it’s in Pennsylvania. Thus, you’ll have gentle but perceptible uphill gradients, some of which are several miles in length.
A couple of the climbs I’d consider nice challenges to newbie cyclists, but without a doubt none of the climbs are overly steep or taxing.
Along with a plethora of gorgeous mountain landscapes, there’s also plenty of cool manmade scenes out there––three tunnels (the Enlow Tunnel, the National Tunnel and the Greer Tunnel) along with the spectacular 900-plus foot long McDonald Trestle, a lofty span which takes you high above the tree tops. Your views from atop the McDonald are amazing.
To get to the Montour Trail from the Akron-Cleveland area take I-80 east to I-76 east into Pennsylvania, and then jump on I-79 south. Once on I-79, drive south into metro Pittsburgh and then cross the Ohio River. At that point you’ll need to decide what trailhead you want to visit (go to https://montourtrail.org/wpSupport/map.pdf for a pdf map of the trail). My recommendation for those of you who want to cycle the whole trail, is to situate yourself near the midpoint in Canonsburg.
The trailhead in Canonsburg is massive, plus you’re right next to the Tandem Connection bike shop/sub & sandwich cafe.
If you want to stay the weekend, there’s plenty of hotels three to four miles down the road in a large commercial/residential center called SouthPointe.
So if you’re growing a bit weary of hammering and you’re looking to rediscover your spiritual cycling self the Montour Trail just might be your ticket.